Family holiday review: Palm Springs, California

A family adventure into the Californian desert with cable car views, water fun, Native American history and some pretty wild wildlife

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In a nutshell

We’ve never experienced anything like it – luxury in the Californian desert, incredible landscapes and sunsets, Native American heritage, plus a rotating cable car and full-throttle waterpark fun.

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Best for

Families with school age children who want to spend a few luxurious days exploring the incredible desert landscape and the unique lifestyle of Palm Springs, just 1.5 hours out of LA.

Where to stay

We spent 3 days in the Hyatt Palm Springs, a well-groomed hotel that is part of the Hyatt chain, where every room is a suite. This means if you have two children, you can all stay in a single suite, with the children sharing the pull-out sofa in the ‘living room’, while you enjoy the King-size bed in the bedroom.

Both rooms have large-screen TVs, and in between the two rooms (there isn’t a door dividing them) there’s a good-sized fridge and a bathroom. It’s a great way to keep the family together while having some privacy. Plus, each afternoon a friendly member of staff comes round to the rooms with a trolley of free drinks and biscuits. 

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The children’s favourite part of the hotel was, no surprises, the swimming pool. It’s not a large or fancy pool, but provided great relief from the heat (more about it being hot, hot, hot later on). The pool is an adult one, but suitable for toddlers and young children with supervision (and armbands).

Visiting in out-of-season August, there were plenty of sunbeds, fresh towels, an iced water cooler and refreshing misters dotted around the pool – squirting out a cooling water spray. Heaven.

If you’re able to stretch your budget, you can pay extra to have your own cabana – a shaded area with its own misters and sunbeds. If you’re planning to spend the day at the pool, it means you can guarantee plenty of shade as well as sun.

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We had a room with a balcony that looked out over the pool, and then onto a backdrop of the San Jacinto mountains – as the sun set, it was a stunning view. (The balcony was also the perfect place to dry off towels and swimming costumes.)

The Hyatt is in a great position in Palm Springs – right on Palm Canyon Drive – but we found we used our car (a good-value and roomy SUV that we hired through Virgin Holidays) every day. The hotel offers a complementary daily bus shuttle but with the children we wanted the freedom of being able to move around from place to place whenever we needed.

One thing to know in advance – the hotel offers valet-only parking at a hefty additional cost of $25 a night. There is free parking in an open parking lot just on the other side of the road, so there is a choice if you don’t want to pay the extra. Remember, all US hotels charge taxes on top of the room rate, so the extras can build up.

How hot is it?

Gloriously hot. From June to September, it’s searingly hot with average high temperatures of over 100°F. It cools down to low 70s in December and January, and hovers in the 80s and 90s in the months in between. Apparently, Palm Springs enjoys 350 days of sunshine each year (goodness knows where the sun goes on the other 15 days). You need to take bottled water with you everywhere, and use high factor suncream throughout the day. Plus you’ll need flip-flops on your feet – the ground burns your soles!

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Best family-friendly places to visit in Palm Springs

1 Palm Springs Visitor Centre (above)

Situated by the Palm Springs sign (designed to look like the Hollywood sign – but without the Hollywood Hills), the Centre is a great place to start, as well as being a fascinating example of the modernist architecture that Palm Springs is famous for. It’s filled with info about places to go and populated by well-informed staff, providing helpful insider info. It’s also at the beginning of the road leading to…

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2 Palm Springs Aerial Tramway

If you do one thing with your family, do this. It’s a 10-minute ride in a rotating cable car up the sheer cliffs of ChinoCanyon into the San Jacinto mountains. The Mountain Station at the top is more than 8000 ft up and gives you amazing views of Palm Springs and CoachellaValley. The tram car is a fun ride – it feels safe but there are little bumps as you go over the pylons, which the children enjoyed! The views as you go up are stunning, and as the car rotates everyone has a great view. At the top, it’s considerably cooler than Palm Springs and there are a variety of well-signposted walks – long and short – to follow, with more views, rocks to clamber over and picnic spots. It’s not cheap with a family, but for us well worth it.

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3 Wet’n’wild waterpark

Not the biggest waterpark, but the perfect way to keep cool in the desert heat and just 5 miles from downtown Palm Springs. Best for children from 4 upwards, but we saw younger children having plenty of fun too. For preschoolers, there are 2 water slides, a funhouse area with slides, hoses, buckets and water curtains, a wonderful wave pool and lazy river, plus free swim aids. For older children there are some heart-stopping vertical drops, the brilliant Pacific Spin, Flowrider surf machine plus more raft rides and slides. Oh yes, and it’s fun for parents too.

Insider tips:

  • Wear flip-flops as the concrete floor burns!  
  • Keep piling on the suncream and take hats for all – there’s not an awful lot of shade
  • It’s only open from March to October
  • You have to pay an additional $14 (in 2014) for the car park
  • You can’t take in any food, only bottled water
  • Get a locker to store valuables so you can have a worry-free time – and they’re easy to access during the day
  • Look out for entry vouchers in Palm Spring magazines or money-off offers online
  • We barely had to queue in late August, but online reviews suggest it can get very busy in American school holidays
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4 Indian Canyons

The Agua Caliente Band of Cahuilla Indians made this desert area their home centuries ago and there’s still a thriving tribe and community in the area today. Visitors are able to drive into the Indian Canyons for a small cost and chose one of the canyons to explore. There are short walks in ancient palm-lined gorges and long treks across the desert mountains.

We went at 8am in the morning to beat the intense heat, and in high summer between July and September you can only visit on Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays. For the rest of the year, from October to June, the Canyons are open daily.

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One thing – this is the real outdoors, so be prepared. 

In an almost I’m a Celebrity Get Me Out of Here! moment, a rattlesnake suddenly appeared across our path shaking its noisy tail. Luckily, we’d read that they only attack if they feel under threat, and it was just giving us its best rattly warning. But it did give us a bit of a shock – and it’s worth letting your children know what to do if they come across snakes or other wildlife.

The other thing you need to do is make sure you take lots of water. It’s thirsty work and once you’re out of the palm gorges there’s not much shade. 

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5 VillageFest

A free street festival that happens in the main Palm Canyon Drive every Thursday evening. Bustling with stalls, crafts, good musicians (and kooky musicians), art, food and lots of green vibes. It may have been evening but was still boiling hot in August – but at least you don’t need sunscreen.

Other sites that we didn’t have time to visit: Palm Springs Air Museum, Art Museum, Elvis Presley Honeymoon Hideaway, Agua Caliente Cultural Museum plus further into the desert, the Joshua Tree National Park, The Living Desert Zoo and for something completely different, designer labels for less at the retail outlet Desert Hills.

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When to go

With children 8yrs+, it’s great to go in the second half of August, as the American children have returned to school, and amazingly it’s out-of-season, so prices are a little cheaper. However, the reason it’s off-season is the heat. We’re talking seriously hot – over 100°F in the day, and not much cooler in the evening!

If you go in the Easter holidays, temperatures are in the more equitable 80s while the October half-term will be in the high 80s.

With pre-school children, January to May the most popular months to visit (manageable heat) – but expect to pay peak season prices.

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